Energy policy (including the practice of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”) is the subject of heated debate in the current political campaign. Proponents hail fracking as a new source of inexpensive domestic energy which has reduced reliance on foreign oil. Opponents point to harmful impacts on the environment and the possibility the underground drilling may have contributed to earthquakes in some regions.
The brilliance of Jennifer Haigh’s fifth novel, Heat and Light, is how she brings this controversial subject to a human level. The story is set in the fictional western Pennsylvania town of Bakerton, a crumbling community reeling from the collapse of its coal mining industry. A Texas energy company comes to town with the promise of hopes and dreams. A slick young salesman convinces land owners to sign leases to allow drilling under their land, holding out the lure of easy money. The struggling families are easy marks.
One of Haigh’s central themes is how desperate people chase false hopes and dreams. Rich Devlin leads a large and diverse ensemble cast. Rich works as a correctional officer while he dreams of raising the money to start a dairy farm on the land he inherited from his grandfather. He jumps at the chance to sign a lease. His fragile wife, Shelby, is prone to drama and is constantly taking her daughter, Olivia, to the emergency room with vague ailments. Later, Shelby will claim Olivia’s illness is related to pollution of their well water from a leak of chemicals used in the drilling process.
Rena Koval and Susan “Mack” Mackey, a lesbian couple who are neighbors of the Devlins, manage an organic farm. Concerned about environmental impacts, some of their largest customers cancel contracts when they get wind that drilling is going on in their area. This propels Rena to invite a geology professor to town to rally support against the fracking project, which complicates her life when she becomes smitten with the professor.
Shelby’s spiritual counselor, Pastor Jess Peacock, faces her own struggles. Lonely and adrift after the death of her husband, Pastor Wes Peacock, she finds solace in an affair with Herc, who is part of the drilling crew and fails to mention that he has a wife and family back in Texas. Wesley’s back story is the most powerful. Stricken with cancer in his mid-30s Wesley becomes convinced his illness can be traced to the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in 1979. As a child, his family lived near the damaged nuclear reactor.
Rich Devlin’s dream of a future as a dairy farmer turns into a nightmare when he learns his family’s well water is contaminated. A lawyer tells him that his land is most likely worthless. Meanwhile the Texas energy behemoth that is bankrolling the fracking venture is hemorrhaging money.
Haigh has conducted an impressive amount of research into the process of fracking and the equipment and processes required to drill underground. There is also a chilling chapter told from inside the Three Mile Island nuclear plant on the day of the disaster.
Her prose is clear and sobering, but never flowery. She writes of the region’s dependence on energy, “Rural Pennsylvania doesn’t fascinate the world, not generally. But, cyclically, periodically, its innards are of interest. Bore it, strip it, set it on fire, a burnt offering to the collective need.”
At another point, she writes, “More than most places, Pennsylvania is what lies beneath.”
Haigh skillfully weavers numerous subplots and supporting characters into the story. “Heat and Light” is the most ambitious and satisfying work yet from this talented writer.